Lee Wei Ling and the elastic band on her father’s shorts

From ‘At Oxley Road, we value the frugal life’, 5 Aug 2012, article by Lee Wei Ling, Think, Sunday Times.

I grew up in a middle-class family. Though they were well-off, my parents trained my brothers and me to be frugal from young. We had to turn off water taps completely. If my parents found a dripping tap, we would get a ticking off. And when we left a room, we had to switch off lights and air-conditioners.

My father’s frugality extends beyond lights and air-conditioners. When he travelled abroad, he would wash his own underwear, or my mother did so when she was alive. He would complain that the cost of laundry at five-star hotels was so high he could buy new underwear for the price of the laundry service.

One day in 2003, the elastic band on my father’s old running shorts gave way. My mother had mended that pair of shorts many times before, so my father asked her to change the band. But my mother had just had a stroke and her vision was impaired. So she told my father: “If you want me to prove my love for you, I will try.” I quickly intervened to say: “My secretary’s mother can sew very well. I will ask her to do it.”

My parents and I prefer things we are used to. For instance, the house we have lived in all my life is more than 100 years old. When we first employed a contractor-cum-housekeeper, Mr Teow Seng Hua, more than 10 years ago, he asked me: “Your father has worked so hard for so many years. Why doesn’t he enjoy some luxuries?” I explained we were perfectly comfortable with our old house and our old furniture. Luxury is not a priority.

..All the bathrooms in our house have mosaic tiles. It is more practical than marble which can be slippery if wet. But it is now difficult to buy mosaic in Singapore. So again, Mr Teow bought mosaic tiles from Malaysia to keep in reserve in case some of our current tiles broke or were chipped.

…Frugality is a virtue that my parents inculcated in me. In addition to their influence, I try to lead a simple life partly because I have adopted some Buddhist practices and partly because I want to be able to live simply if for some reason I lose all that I have one day.

I’m not sure if Wei Ling’s father would appreciate information on his undergarments or elastic bands being leaked this way, but there’s a fine line between being ‘frugal’ or ‘thrifty’ and, well, simply being a ‘stingy poker’. This isn’t the first time that Lee is harping on about how she wasn’t exactly living in the lap of luxury. In 2009, she emphasised that life ‘wasn’t a bed of roses’, and more recently she waxed lyrical about the joys of sleeping on a cold hard floor. But there are inevitably a few things missing from this account as to how the Lee’s Oxley fort was being run. For example, she didn’t say anything about the ‘maids’ (plural) in the house, as divulged in an eulogy by a Lee relative at Mdm Kwa Geok Choo’s funeral. Granddaughter Li Xiuqi had this to say about the late matriarch:

Before stroke, she was a power woman. She ran the Oxley road household like a tight ship. She paid the maids, bought the fish, quality-checked the cooking, and peeled my grandfather’s fruit and packed his suitcase.

So now we know who peels LKY’s oranges. According to Xiuqi, the Lee family never installed a shower in their bathroom until the matriarch got her stroke, using the ‘old fashioned’ method of scooping from a tub of water. Grandson Li Shengwu talked about how ‘Nai Nai’ provided a ‘well-stocked’ bookshelf next to the children’s table instead of a TV. I suspect there’s not a single TV in the entire Oxley residence. Just look at the basement dining room of 38 Oxley Road below, the WOMB of the PAP. It looks more like an old conference room than anything else (and it was, in fact, the makeshift HQ for the inaugural PAP meeting in 1954). It looks like nothing’s changed since then. Geez, there’s not even a sofa in sight.

The coziest corner in 38 Oxley Road

There is a lingering refrain to use the word ‘BUNGALOW’ in Wei Ling’s trip down memory lane. Someone from the Remembersingapore blog put up a rare exterior shot of 38 Oxley Road. No guard dogs in sight. In 1965, a Malaysian visitor was surprised to discover that LKY stayed in a ‘modern, wooden house’.   Well if the picture below comes across as a humble shack, then what are the rest of we living in? Damp cardboard boxes?

House of the Rising Son

Wei Ling also failed to mention how her house is constantly guarded by Gurkhas like a fortress. In 1972, additional road humps were ordered to be placed for ‘safety reasons’ outside the Oxley house, in addition to convex mirrors a year earlier to give Gurkhas a better view of the road, in case anyone decides to speed dangerously and try anything funny. Security is so tight (like LKY’s elastic bands) that you could get arrested for shouting outside.  Such paranoia is understandable though, especially if you have people who fling bricks at your compound (Brick thrower fined $1000, 8 March 1991, ST). There are some creepy going-ons too surrounding the house. In 1964, a policeman was found mysteriously shot in an unoccupied house which stood ‘back to back’ with the Oxley one. But I doubt the belt-tightening Lees believe in spending money on ghostbusters.

LKY also talked, in typically unsentimental fashion, about demolishing the house when he’s dead and gone. This ‘big, rambling house with five bedrooms’ was also built by a ‘Jewish merchant’ more than a century ago. I wonder if his name happened to be Shylock. You can also forget about using Google street view to see what the birthplace of our government looks like, and none of the Lee kids seem interested, or ALLOWED, to post pics of it on Instagram. The virtue of ‘frugality’ within the Lee family may have been stretched to the point of ‘cheapskate’ depending on whose side you’re on, if you’d recall the 1990’s saga whereby the Lee father and son bought condominiums at Nassim Jade and Scotts 28, at DISCOUNTED prices. In 1996, both promptly donated their property discounts to charity (SM, BG Lee donate discounts on property buys to charity, 4 June 1996, ST). How thoughtful.

So, unlike the cosy, obsessive-compulsively spartan image of Oxley Road painted here by Wei Ling, the reality is that this place started out as a secret hideout and remains a secretive, gilded stronghold till today, and one is left only to the imagination as to how many rings of barbed wire, buff Gurkhas with guns, saber-toothed guard dogs and CCTVs surround this building, keeping vigil over the premises like it were an ivory castle in a princess fable. It goes without saying that in spite of Lee’s rose-tinted humility, she was well taken of, never had to beg for food in her life, had an excellent education, and lives in a house 99% of us can never afford. It’s like a queen telling her subjects how she had to eat food with her bare hands because she wanted to spare her servants the arduous task of washing utensils. Yet she’ll ALWAYS have food on the table. This is like a monk preaching out of a window in his temple without noticing the sharks swimming in the moat around his abode, blind to the corpses of peasants who so much as dared to fish from his waters because they had nothing else to eat.


2 Responses

  1. Dear Dr Lee

    I have been reading your articles, including the most recent one, At Oxley Road, in our Sunday paper, The Star, Kuala Lumpur. I’m from Kuala Lumpur, though born in Malacca, btw. Whenever I came across your articles in our paper I would devour it earnestly. Maybe because I was drawn to the old sepia photos you have included in your articles. I was drawn to uour meaningful writings and particularly recollections of your parents’s lifestyle,  upbringing of their children and of an era  I could identify with to my late parents.

    I could relate to all your writings and appreciate the sacrifices your dad, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and mum, have put into Singapore and raised it to where it is now. 

    And, I appreciate and am touched all the more of your parentable upbringing that has brought up the writer behind all the meaningful articles. Morseso poignant perhaps, when the paper editor inserted a 9-word description at the end of your articles, that says – The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute!

    One can call your successes and achievements a genetic inheritance but I would also attribute it to simply parental upbringing. That’s one vital ingredient that is regretfully missing in most families I know these days. 

    So, thank you and may you keep on sharing your life stories, Dr Lee. I look forward to reading your writings again in our paper. 


    • John there is such a thing called stock. Wei Ling is from a good stock. If you do not believe in stock try asking r ace -horse breeders.

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